Enlarge image

Deniz Yücel, co-spokesperson of the authors' association PEN Berlin, at the congress

Photo: Jens Kalaene / dpa

For a year and a half, PEN Berlin, an association dedicated to the protection of persecuted authors and freedom of speech, has been in existence. After accusations of bullying and quarrels, he emerged from the old German PEN. However, even the new Berlin organization is not free of conflicts. In the run-up to last weekend's general meeting in Berlin, some members resigned, such as the publisher Ernst Piper, who accused the writer and PEN co-spokesperson Eva Menasse of making one-sided statements critical of Israel. Menasse is a spokesperson for the NGO, together with journalist Deniz Yücel.

PEN Berlin rejects BDS. This is not a classic introduction to a welcome speech. But I promised. Not to say: I stand in the Word.

At yesterday's General Assembly, some members expressed the wish that we, as a governing body, would clarify our position on the campaign that aims to isolate the State of Israel economically, politically and culturally – and is thus quite successful in some parts of the world. Not in the economic and political spheres, but all the more so in the cultural and scientific spheres. I then repeated what Eva Menasse and I have already said umpteen times in interviews: BDS is not compatible with the values of the PEN Charter – and I promised to repeat this right at the beginning of this congress until everyone really understood it: We reject BDS.

Even if this is often confused, the dispute in Germany is fortunately not about the question "Israel boycott: yes or no?", but about how to deal with artists who support the BDS campaign. And we take it the same way as Eva Menasse wrote a few days ago in a guest article in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung: We distinguish "whether someone has signed an open letter with thousands of others or has made the boycott of Israel his life's work. And whether it's Palestinians advocating for BDS, or people from some committed distance."

Because, when in doubt, we are always in favour of keeping spaces for debate open as much as possible. Because the freedom of speech also includes the freedom of the stupid, the disturbing, even the supposedly scandalous word. Because, like last year's keynote speaker Ayad Akhtar, we are against any "climate of digital intimidation". Because we don't just reject cancel culture when it suits us. For all these reasons, we, the governing body of PEN Berlin, reject a blanket boycott of anything and everything that is somehow labeled as "BDS-close". And that's why we reject BDS. It's logical, isn't it?

The authors' association PEN Berlin is just one and a half years old. PEN stands for writers of a wide variety of genres. PEN Berlin emerged from a fierce dispute at the German PEN Centre based in Darmstadt, which was not only, but also about positions on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. A year and a half later, a bestial raid and a war later, we are again fighting for the right position.

An irony of history? I mean, no. Because we did not found PEN Berlin as a community of convictions. Rather, we wanted an association that was diverse not only in terms of origin, gender, sexual orientation, age, etc., but also in terms of politics. The quarrel was not only inevitable, it was deliberate.

I regret that it was not possible to organize this dispute in its entirety within our authors' association without ruptures and farewells. But I think that we took a big step in the right direction at yesterday's General Assembly, not least with two differently nuanced but not contradictory resolutions, both of which were introduced by members: one on "solidarity with Jews in Germany, Israel and everywhere", a second "against social polarisation and illiberal tendencies in the cultural sector".

But I continue to insist on the principle of "We agree to disagree". We agree that we do not agree.

But there are two things that unite us in this association: on the one hand, our commitment to freedom of expression, freedom of the press and the arts, and on the other hand, our support for colleagues from all over the world who are persecuted, arrested and tortured because they have made use of this freedom.

And in another respect, we were largely in agreement: that we wanted to have a PEN that was also new in its language and form.

At our founding meeting, I quoted from Rainald Goetz's famous text "Subito", which he had read in Klagenfurt in 1983, covered in blood: his wonderful suada against the "brash boss-peinsacks Böll and Grass", who constantly wanted to defend something, when literature had better "attack hornily".

"Awesome attack", if that's what you want, sure, I'm very much in favor of horny attacking. But it's better to attack horny individually, as an author. But for all our love of individualism and all our aversion to clubbing, there are a few things that none of us can do alone. First and foremost: solidarity with persecuted colleagues, symbolic and high-profile support as well as practical and concrete support. This is our core task. That's why today we have decorated the Festsaal Kreuzberg with the pictures of captured authors, which we will present to you in the course of this congress.

It is not in our power to enable Israelis and Palestinians to live in freedom and peace, just as it is not in our power to help Ukrainians live in freedom and peace. But if we are lucky, we can help individual colleagues to escape their oppressors and build a new life in freedom and peace. Certainly, a modest goal. But it's the kind of solidarity we can provide.

Before I continue at this point – solidarity – allow me to interject on a personal note.

In April 2002, a large pro-Palestinian demonstration was announced in Berlin. Previously, in the course of the second intifada, there had been anti-Jewish outbursts at demonstrations, which is why a few friends of mine wanted to hold a solidarity rally with Israel on the Friedrichsbrücke in Berlin-Mitte, within sight of the pro-Palestinian demonstration.

Those were different times: Martin Walser's Peace Prize speech, with which, whether intentionally or not, he prompted today's Höckes and Gaulands, was not long ago. Jürgen Möllemann made waves in the FDP, Martin Hohmann in the CDU. And at the aforementioned pro-Palestinian demonstration, 18,000 participants ran, politicians from the Greens and the PDS in the front, children in the back, whose parents had tied dummy explosives around their stomachs.

At the request of my friends, I moderated the counter-rally, of about 100 people, until we had to disperse it by order of the police for security reasons.

A year and a half later, in the autumn of 2003, there were terrorist attacks on the Neve Shalom and Beth Israel synagogues in Istanbul. Although al-Qaeda claimed responsibility, the perpetrators came from a Turkish jihadist group. My roommate at the time, Aycan Demirel, and I thought: If no one else is doing something, we have to do something.

So we organized a rally against anti-Semitism with other friends in Kreuzberg, to which we invited the Turkish Federation Berlin-Brandenburg and Cem Özdemir as speakers, among others. The letters from Turkish Jews expressing their gratitude for the fact that for the first time ever non-Jewish Turks protested against anti-Semitism in Turkey were overwhelming.

What I want to say is that the word "solidarity" is precious to me, especially since I was able to enjoy great solidarity during my arrest by the Erdoğan regime.

But solidarity requires not only a weighty cause, but also a commitment: time, effort, money – possibly even the willingness to take a risk. Assuring support among like-minded people on Facebook is not solidarity.

This is precisely why I would have been opposed to publishing an address of solidarity in the name of PEN Berlin after the Hamas massacre, as some members – and not just a few who left loudly or quietly – reproached us: it was not out of a lack of compassion that we decided not to publish such an address, but because solidarity requires more than a text from the same old sentence, that can be written on the way to the coffee machine – and that would have tied in with the sound of the great resolutions of great writers announced in the pipe haze, which we wanted to leave behind.

We thought: We'd rather talk to deeds. For example, with the impressive event "Worried about Israel", which we organised at short notice on the very first day on the big stage at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

In doing so, I share the criticism of the long silence of some institutions and individuals. But not every lack of confession is a silence, and not every silence is resounding. The standard for this is an individual one: for example, anyone who regularly – and often rightly – speaks out against racism and Islamophobia, but then says nothing about it when a mass murder of Jews is celebrated on the streets of Germany, has a credibility problem. And if PEN Berlin had issued press statements in the past outside of its core issues, on solidarity with Ukraine, on saving the climate – or on the civilian casualties in the Gaza Strip – but none on October 7, this criticism would have been justified.

Another reason for my reluctance is that I don't like to write press releases that have no chance of being published, especially since even press releases from our core area are often lost. Although this is part of the business of an NGO, it is sometimes really annoying. When we recently announced that our honorary member Toomaj Salehi, an Iranian rapper, had been arrested again after eleven months in torture prison and his interim release, this was not worth two syllables to any newspaper – although the connection to the Middle East war is obvious: If the Iranian freedom movement had succeeded in overthrowing the mullahs' regime, if "Jin, Jiyan, Azadi" had succeeded in overthrowing the mullahs' regime, Hamas might not have dared to commit mass murder on October 7.

However, solidarity has another component. When, shortly after the assassination attempt on Salman Rushdie, we organize a reading from his texts, we are addressing a general public; when we publish a press release for Sasha Filipenko, it is in the small hope of putting a little pressure on the German government so that it in turn passes on pressure to the Belarusian regime.

That is why every gesture of solidarity has a concrete addressee before all political considerations. It is important to convey sympathy to the respective people.

After October 7, I thought: No one in Israel will be interested in whether a German authors' association says something about it or not. What I hadn't considered was that some of our Jewish members – regardless of our usual publication policy, regardless of our readings against anti-Semitism – might interpret the absence of a solidarity address in a way that was never intended. If we have given you the impression of a lack of compassion, I deeply regret it.

In terms of internal communication, not everything has gone perfectly in recent weeks. However, it is also the case that anyone whose first speech in a club is to announce his resignation on Facebook eludes the conversation. And when someone else says in his resignation letter that he has dealt with anti-Semitism for so many years and therefore has no sympathy for "feel-good Jews" who "sell out their own people," then this reveals a moral abyss on which it is difficult to build a conversation.

Because that was also part of the past few weeks for us: that people – including members in the rarest of cases – attacked my comrade-in-arms Eva Menasse on social media in a disgusting way. And I'm not talking about criticism here; I don't know anyone who, like Eva, has internalized the principle that freedom of expression does not mean the right to freedom from dissent.

But it is intolerable when people whose ancestors spent the years between 33 and 45 differently than Eve's do set themselves up as disciplinarians of Jewish colleagues.

Incidentally, it is not the case that we have only been criticised from one direction. There are also people, including members, who, on the contrary, accuse us, the Board, of being too pro-Israel. He "clearly positions himself against the terror policy of the Israeli state," one member told us in his resignation letter, which he concluded with a book recommendation: If we wanted to know what was really going on in Israel, we should read this book.

Not surprisingly, it was his own book that he recommended reading – published by Piper Verlag, by the way. A quarter of an hour later we received the almost identical e-mail a second time, this time with the note "orthographically correct version". Logically, this document will one day be archived in Marbach, if not immediately exhibited in the German Historical Museum behind bulletproof glass. Sometimes it's fun to run an authors' association.

I am telling this story not in order to take a stand against this colleague who has now resigned, but because it illustrates what our daily bread is: We do not have to lead an architects' association through a global political crisis, especially against the background of German history, but a shop of writers, journalists and other people who believe in the power and importance of the written word – in general and fundamentally. but especially to the power and meaning of the word which they themselves have written.

Words can incite violence or prevent violence. But once organized violence is unleashed, there is usually nothing that words can counter it. And it is precisely this realization that is difficult for many people of the Word.

And perhaps this is precisely the reason why an authors' association is particularly shaken in such a situation, regardless of whether individuals are cooking their own soup in the process.

The following effect can be observed: whether the word Middle East first conjures up images of the Israeli victims of October 7 and the hostages of Hamas, or the Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip who are also hostages of Hamas in another way, one feels sympathy. But there's nothing you can do.

In the event of an earthquake, you can at least donate. And at the PEN Berlin Congress last year, we presented the "Fire Trucks for Kharkiv" campaign to raise money for generators and other relief supplies to deliver to Serhiy Zhadan in Ukraine.

But when you can't do anything at all, despair looks for a substitute – this can find productive forms, but also destructive ones. Then she likes to work her way through people who are tangible: "What did you do when Israel was subjected to the biggest attack in its history?" – "I resigned from an association." The technical term is: skip action.

But it becomes a real problem when such leapfrogging actions affect the whole of society. As was the case with the events surrounding the awarding of the Hannah Arendt Prize to Masha Gessen. After the Bremen Senate and the Heinrich Böll Foundation withdrew, it now takes place on a smaller scale.

I do not want to go into detail about Gessen's text in the New Yorker, but I would like to ask three questions:

1. What concrete contribution to the fight against anti-Semitism in, say, Bremen-Tenever do the political leaders hope to make from this?

2. Are we sure that everything will be fine if Olaf Scholz and Frank-Walter Steinmeier receive a spokesman for global hatred of Israel, namely Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan, without encountering any significant criticism, if Robert Habeck makes deals with the Hamas sponsors from Qatar and Hubert Aiwanger does not despite a transgression from his youth, but despite his mixture of cryboyishness and callousness, with which he stylized himself as a victim, can he remain deputy prime minister – while Jewish intellectuals like Masha Gessen or, before him, Candice Breitz are to be canceled?

3. Would the party friends of Erdoğan's host Scholz and Qatar's major client Habeck actually give Hannah Arendt the Hannah Arendt Prize in the Bremen Senate? Are they aware of their criticism of the establishment of the Israeli state? (Which, by the way and with all due respect, I don't think is the last word in wisdom.)

What is evident here once again is the post-material shift. A shift away from the political and economic field to the cultural and symbolic field, which has been further reinforced by digital communication. To where the solutions are simple, the effects are cracking and the costs are low.

To criticize this gigantic collective whataboutism does not mean that I have solutions to complicated questions of energy or integration policy. But as PEN Berlin, our alternative to purely symbolic politics is what Rudolf Borchardt described with the beautiful phrase "active despair".

I would like to explain this with a behind the scenes from our work; using an example for which we have received as much applause as criticism: the Adania Shibli case.

When it became apparent that the Palestinian writer would not be awarded at the Frankfurt Book Fair for her book »A Minor Matter« as planned, we published a press release with which we tried to prevent the imminent cancellation after all.

The sentence "No book will be different, better, worse or more dangerous because the news situation changes" has been quoted many times. Less noticed, however, was another quote by Eva Menasse from the same press release: "In the wake of Hamas' mass murder of hundreds of civilians, there is a conspicuous and painful lack of Palestinian and Arab voices condemning these crimes in no uncertain terms. But in order for critical intellectuals to be able to do this, they must not be suspected and excluded from the outset."

Only hours later, the award ceremony was postponed, which developed into an international cultural-political affair. Several hundred writers, including Nobel laureates Abdulrazak Gurnah, Annie Ernaux and Olga Tokarczuk, protested against it, and numerous Arab authors cancelled their participation in the fair.

More on this topic

  • Open Letter to the Frankfurt Book Fair: Protest from the International Literary Scene against Price Shifts

  • Palestinian author in the »Guardian«: Adania Shibli gives first interview since price shift

  • Literature Prize for Palestinian Author:The Main Thing at OnceBy Tobias Rapp

Eva Menasse and Julia Franck, on the other hand, organized a reading from Shibli's novel for PEN Berlin. Of course, the aim was to give literature a space; Of course, we followed the principle of separating author and work, from which we would have organized a reading for, say, Uwe Tellkamp or Michel Houellebecq in a comparable situation. That's our job.

But this consideration, which was already included in the press release, also played an important role. The only non-Jew who participated in this event was me. In my introductory speech, I challenged the claim that Palestinian and Arab voices are not being heard, saying: "What is missing are Palestinian voices – intellectuals, artists, activists – who do not leave the leadership to the radicals, religious or secular, in the streets. There is no lack of the phrase ›We distance ourselves‹; the phrase 'We have a problem, Habibi' is missing."

(As you can see, I also find my own written word not entirely unimportant.)

This reading was therefore a gesture and at the same time an invitation and an invitation to Arab colleagues to take responsibility. But such an invitation is better formulated if it does not come in the Miss Rottenmeier tone.

And I don't say that because I think the problem of anti-Semitism in the immigration society is exaggerated. Quite the opposite. I think this society has a huge problem that cannot be solved either by banning clothing or by taking measures against foreigners. Schools and other government institutions are important. But just as important are voices from the community who are leading this discussion within their community.

It is "morally, historically and politically unacceptable to stand up for the cause of freedom and liberation of Palestine and at the same time to question the fact that the Holocaust took place or to regard it as a blessed act," one of our many Arab members recently wrote on Instagram. Of course, his view of Israel is different from mine, or perhaps yours. But I give him at least as much credit for this intervention in a question that is so fundamental to the self-image of this country as he gave us credit for the Shibli reading.

"That's also what PEN Berlin is for: to stay in touch with our quite a few Arab members," writes Eva Menasse in the current issue of Die Zeit. In other words, with people who in turn can have an impact on milieus that are inaccessible, for example, for an Austrian-Jewish writer from Wilmersdorf or for a German-Turkish journalist from Kreuzberg. The problems are obvious. The question is whether we want to try to help solve them.

Nothing less is our claim. The great Amos Oz, wrote: "A fanatic is a man who can only count to one." For us, on the other hand, even the two is not enough. That's why a statement or a reading is sometimes more than a statement or a reading – and that's what is meant by the congress motto "With your head through the walls".

Finally, one more thing that is really important to me: PEN Berlin rejects BDS.